The highest city in the world at 4,060m (beating El Alto, by La Paz, by 2m), Potosí was once one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population greater than London or Paris. The reason was the largest deposit of silver ever discovered in the mountain behind the city. Extracting the 60,000 tonnes found took a couple of centuries and resulted in the death of six million people, mainly natives and African slaves.
All that remains of this wealth now in Potosí are some impressive buildings and churches, with almost all of the riches being shipped back to Spain to fund their empire.
What they did with the silver once mined is well explained in Casa Nacional de Moneda (National Mint of Bolivia), one of the best presented museums in Bolivia. An hour and a half guided tour explains the process of melting and moulding silver into coins, and how the technology changed over time from humans, to horses, to steam power.
Nearby the Mirador Torre de la Compañia de Jesus offers the best views of the city, particularly as the sun set.
The Catedral de la Ciudad de Potosi was seemingly shut all day, but it was interesting to see the exterior at different times of day.
An unexpected surprise was a parade in the evening.
The highlight was a mine tour with Big Deal Tours, run by people who used to work in the mines. They gave a fascinating insight into life as a miner in Potosí, far more nuanced that what the documentary The Devil’s Miner or National Geographic portray. Despite the working conditions and health risks the miners have a strong sense of pride in what they do, and are able to make a reasonable living to support their families, with some striking it lucky to become wealthy.
The tour started in the markets where a stick of dynamic can be bought by anyone for less than USD5, along 96% proof alcohol which really should be more for cleaning than drinking. We also bought some coco leaves, which keep the miners going without food for their typical eight hour shift. It’s not just the working conditions in the mines that result in a typically short life expectancy (around 50) but the accompanying lifestyle unfortunately.
There are around sixty refineries for processing the silver and zinc found in the minerals. The rich seams have been depleted so the maximum concentration they now achieve is around 40% for zinc and 30% for silver.
There are around 180 mines in the area, employing thousands of people as part of collective organisations. We went in one only twenty metres or so (Intrepid Travel safety rules) but I was happy not to descend deeper into the mine. Instead we sat by El Tio, god of the underground to whom offerings are made, and talked with our wonderful guide Pedro. He’d worked in the mines for eight years from the age of ten, and was enthusiastic in sharing his experiences and thoughts on the industry.
To end with a few photos from the very scenic drive between Uyuni and Potosi.